I recently was asked by a non-Jewish cousin to read a passage from the “Old Testament” at the funeral of a beloved, but non-Jewish aunt. I rather bristled (to myself) at having the Jewish Bible called the “Old Testament,” yet I realized that this is a common term used by those who have grown up in a mainly Christian culture.
Why was this term “Old Testament” offensive to me as a Jew? Because it implies that the Hebrew Bible, which is foundational to Judaism, has been “replaced” by a different text, and is no longer good enough. For many Christians, that interpretation is easily accepted, but it is offensive to Jews. We Jews instead call our text the “Hebrew Bible.”
But no matter what one’s religious faith, we all have our sacred texts. For my Muslim friends, it is the Quran. For my Christian friends, it is the Bible—the Old Testament and New Testament. I do not know much of the sacred texts of Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and others. I do know that the Hindus have many sacred works, like the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads.
Gee ... as I think about it, I realize it is time for me to go back to my very old text books from college and read up on these. I used to know more about them, but that was a long time ago!
In Judaism, like other religions, we have our sacred texts. The first and foremost is the Torah.
The word “Torah” comes from the same Hebrew root as the word for “teacher,” so Torah is a teaching. The Torah was the first sacred text that Jews followed. We know that there were written Torah scrolls in existence in Jerusalem in the 7th Century BCE. But later the Torah was combined with a lot of other scrolls or books and “canonized” by the Rabbis into the Hebrew Bible, called the “Tanach.” “Tanach” is an acronym in Hebrew, which stands for “Torah,” “Neviim” and “Ketuvim.” Neviim is the Hebrew word for prophets. Ketuvim is the word for “writings.”
If you compare the Hebrew Bible to the Christian Old Testament, you will find most of the same books in both. But the arrangement of the books is somewhat different. I laid out my Hebrew Bible next to the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Christian Bible to see the difference. So here is the order of Books that I found:
The initial order of texts, for the first 11 books, is the same in the Hebrew Bible the Christian Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings.
But from here on the two versions of the Biblical texts are presented in different orders.
- Prophets (Neviim): Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, followed by the Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
- The Writings (Ketuvim): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, I Chronicles, II Chronicles.
- Writings: I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon (called Song of Songs in Jewish Bible).
- Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
The RSV order appears to be the reverse order from the Jewish Bible order; it puts the Writings first, then the Prophets last. But yet Lamentations and Daniel are both included in the Christian Bible among the prophets, and but in the the Jewish Bible are considered “writings.”
And on top of that, there are the apocryphal books, like Tobit, Judith, the Maccabees, etc. Some of these appear in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, but not in the Protestant versions. These apocryphal books were not included by the rabbis in the final version of the Hebrew Bible, though many were known and considered at the time.
I love learning about the history of how these texts came to be what we read today. Such study together with friends and neighbors of other faiths might be a good way for us to build bridges between faith communities. We should all strive to build these bridges, while understanding that no matter what our faith and our sacred texts, these texts are how we each perceive that God spoke to our ancestors and then continues to speak to us today.
And we all respond to God’s words with prayer, but also hopefully with actions to create a more peaceful and just world for all of God’s creation.